I’m not at all surprised that an abuse-of-power scandal is threatening to topple the Trump administration. I admit I’m a little surprised that it’s all happening so fast.
I’ve already written about the deep and worrying ties between Trump and his cronies and Russia. It’s gotten even worse since then, with news that Trump disclosed highly classified intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a level of detail that might jeopardize its source. It’s an open question whether this was a deliberate decision to take Russia into his inmost confidences, or whether sheer blithering incompetence meant he didn’t realize the gravity of what he was doing.
This is part and parcel of Trump’s dictatorial delusion that he’s entitled to obedience from all levels of the U.S. government. He fired Sally Yates after she wouldn’t give him the legal opinion he wanted about his Muslim ban. He purged the U.S. attorneys, including New York’s excellent Preet Bharara, possibly to forestall any corruption investigation they might be conducting into his administration. But the biggest and most shocking move, of course, was his unexpected firing of FBI director James Comey.
At the time, I joked darkly with a friend that if Comey was expecting gratitude for getting Trump elected, he was bound to be disappointed. But this story is much bigger than Trump purging another government official for refusing to swear personal fealty.
According to Sally Yates, the Trump administration was told bluntly that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was compromised by Russia and could have been blackmailed. Even so, he was kept on for 18 more days, until it was reported that he had lied about his contacts with Russian officials. And when the FBI began looking into the matter, that’s when Trump decided to move. He personally asked Comey to drop the probe, and when he wouldn’t, fired him and bragged – to Russia, again! – that the firing had relieved “pressure” on him. As legal observers have noted, this is tantamount to a confession of obstruction of justice.
The only precedent close to this is the Saturday Night Massacre when President Nixon tried to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. The same where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire logic applies: why would Trump try so hard to shut down the investigation of Flynn unless he feared it would point back to him? And given what we already know, what as-yet-unrevealed information could there be that’s even worse?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Douglas Blackmon wrote on Facebook:
What Russia accomplished in this operation represents a breathtaking danger to all Americans, and an immeasurable humiliation to our global prestige. Russian spy agencies successfully reached inside the walls of the White House, the confines of the National Security Council, and the thinking of the second highest ranking elected official of our country. If the highest figures in our government can be duped into self-destruction as easily as this, then none of our secrets are safe, the words of our leaders are unreliable, and the most basic sense of judgment by our president is in doubt.
The escalating revelations of recent days have included that President Trump allegedly sought an oath of loyalty from FBI Director James Comey soon after inauguration, then later asked him to shut down the investigation into possible ties between the president and Russian espionage officials, then last week fired the FBI director and publicly admitted he did so to stop the investigation. Shortly thereafter, President Trump clumsily shared highly classified information with top Russian officials visiting him in the Oval Office, and bragged to those Russians that his firing of Comey was done to shut down the investigation.
There also is no certainty yet that President Trump will be either impeached or choose to resign. But those possibilities, which 14 days ago were almost unimaginable to any informed and fair-minded observer, are now very real. Even if President Trump is able to remain in office through the end of next year, he will have been long abandoned by most serious conservatives in Congress, as the jeopardy of continued association with him becomes clear.
It’s a pleasant and reassuring thought that Republicans’ patriotism and love of country will compel them to do the right thing, even if it puts them at a partisan disadvantage. But as we saw many, many times during the campaign season, that’s no more than a fond delusion.
Republicans had countless opportunities to stand up to Trump before the election, and with a vanishing few exceptions, none of them did. There’s no reason to believe this time will be different. If anything, the more time passes, the harder it is for them to speak out against him, because of the sunk cost effect.
The problem from Republicans’ perspective is that their voters have embraced him – and they’re responsible for that. As this comment points out, “Trump was exactly what conservative leaders engineered their base to accept”:
The focus should be on how Republicans have whispered racism and hatred and fantasies of loss of unearned power and status in the ears of fearful and ignorant white people. Conservative leaders “primed the pump” for the base to accept a spoiler, an unthinking thug who babbles comforting populist nationalism and division from enemies and impossible promises of MAGA nonsense. Trump is exactly what conservatives have been building towards, even if they didn’t recognize how exactly it would manifest.
If Trump voters weren’t dissuaded by his blundering incompetence so far, there’s no reason to believe this will make any difference. As one example, the “America is God’s chosen nation” religious right has been utterly silent on this issue.
I agree, in principle, that much of the blame should lie with the cowardly Republican politicians who knew Trump was unfit but were too afraid to say so. Whatever I may think of their ideology, they’re not as stupid as he is. There’s no way they don’t know the enormous harm he’s doing and will do to America. But unless there’s a truly extraordinary turnaround, they’re willing to let his havoc continue for narrow partisan advantage. In the final accounting, they should be judged at least as guilty as he is.
UPDATE: It’s hard to keep a listing of these high crimes up to date. Today, we heard an additional report that Trump personally asked the head of the NSA and the Director of National Intelligence to tell the FBI to drop its investigation after failing to persuade Comey to do so.